Accepted Paper:

Collecting a colony: the Sir William MacGregor Collection of British New Guinea  


Anna Edmundson (ANU)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the formation of the Sir William MacGregor Collection of British New Guinea, with particular reference to how differential concepts of shared patrimony influenced its assembly and ongoing history.

Paper long abstract:

During his time as Administrator (later Lieutenant-Governor) of British New Guinea from 1888 to 1898, William MacGregor assembled a collection of over 10,000 ethnographic and natural history specimens on behalf of the colony. MacGregor’s collection represents the earliest attempt at systematic scientific collecting in Papua New Guinea and the first instance of an official museum collection assembled by a colonial government. From the outset, he conceived of this collection as the inalienable patrimony of the colony and its constituent subjects. A Scottish doctor by training, he had come to the position of Administrator after many years in the British Colonial Service, where he had formed strong opinions on the importance of collecting ethnological and other specimens ‘before it was too late’ (MacGregor 1895: 88). His career in the Service had been stimulated by an interest in making a contribution to science, stimulated by his Scottish medical education and informed by established Enlightenment traditions of scientific collecting. Within this tradition, objects collected on behalf of science were imbued with a special status; conceived of as objects of universal scientific patrimony. While housed in individual university and state museums, they were nonetheless held on behalf of all humankind. This paper explores the genesis of the MacGregor collection with particular reference to how differential concepts of shared patrimony—of clan, village, wantok, colony, nation state and universal science—affected its formation and influenced the multiple agents involved in its assemblage.

Panel P58
The enlightening museum: anthropology, collecting, encounters